The student of history can detect Gerald Ford's influence on America from Watergate to Iraq, from the presidencies of Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. President for just 29 months, Ford changed the way we live, rescuing the White House from scandal, restoring a measure of confidence in politics and promoting a cadre of aides who have served Bush 43 in important ways. Ford's last two chiefs of staff, Vice President Dick Cheney and ex-Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld-men whose understanding of executive power was shaped by their experience in Ford's White House-have been crucial figures in the Bush years.
Ford's most controversial decision, of course, was to pardon Nixon for any crimes he might have committed in his White House years. In that dark September 1974, there were charges of secret deals, and complaints that Ford had foreclosed the possibility that justice would be done. Yet as the years passed, more Americans came to see the pardon as an act of unusual statesmanship. "I was hurt by the lack of understanding of what I did," Ford told NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham in 2004. "In retrospect, I look back and I understand it, but boy, at the time, as you know, I caught unshirted hell. That so many people came to see my reasoning, and agree with it, makes me feel pretty good."
Ford had reason to glow: in the space of 30 years, he completed the journey from historical footnote and mid-1970s punch line to statesman. As he grew older, he also increasingly moved to the center. He has been quoted criticizing President Bush's Iraq war, and marveled to friends that Cheney had grown so much more hawkish.
In September 1995, at the suggestion of NEWSWEEK's then editor, the late Maynard Parker, I called on President Ford one afternoon in Beaver Creek for a conversation about his life and career. Our ground rules were that I would divulge nothing about our talk until after his death, which would allow him to speak more freely than normal. Reminded of these, Ford replied in lawyerly fashion: "I accept."
In hindsight, what stands out most from our talk was Ford's frustration that the Republican Party had lurched so far to the right. "If I'd been elected in '76," he told me flatly, "the party wouldn't be as far right as it is at the present time ... I sure hope it comes back to the center." Ford went on to complain about the 1992 GOP convention in Houston, where Pat Buchanan-who had challenged President George H.W. Bush for that year's party nomination-demanded that conservatives "take back our culture."